Ask Travis Kelce about his season and he defaults to the team’s achievements.
“We’re in the playoffs, in the hunt for a Super Bowl, another division title,” Kelce said. “We worked through some adversity to get to where we are.”
Not a peep about how he crafted his third Pro Bowl season, one that stands with his best in four years as a full-time player. Kelce again topped the Chiefs in receptions with 83, and his eight touchdowns matched running back Kareem Hunt for the team lead. In fact, they are a career best for Kelce as the Chiefs approach their AFC Wild Card-round game against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday.
“Disregarding the stats, I look at like, where is our team right now?” Kelce said. “I’m very happy we regained our momentum going into the playoffs and that we’re hitting on all cylinders right now. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
But ask Kelce about another aspect of his game that was critical to his success, and the focus becomes singular. Keeping his emotions under control after getting off to a volatile start was also an important factor in a Kelce’s big 2017 season.
It took some reflection to help create change.
“Nobody wants to be the guy out there that’s holding everyone back,” Kelce said. “Whether or not I feel like I was penalized for the right things or thought the flag was right or wrong, if they’re going to throw a flag, it’s going to look bad on me.
“I don’t want that for my teammates. I want to be the guy they know I can be and keep this train rolling.”
Entering the season, Kelce spoke of cleaning up his act. Antics that were costly the previous season — like mocking an official throwing a penalty by throwing his towel — would ostensibly be a thing of the past.
During a television interview before the opener at New England, Kelce said he no longer wanted to be the “young idiot on the field doing immature things.”
Yet, there was Kelce in the victory over the Patriots shoving a football into the groin of an opposing player, earning an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty and a fine from the NFL.
A week later, in the Chiefs’ victory over the Eagles in their home opener at Arrowhead, Kelce drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for taunting. This time, as Hunt was galloping to a 53-yard touchdown run, Kelce ran to the opponent’s sideline flapping his arms and ridiculing the Eagles’ “Fly Eagles Fly,” celebration.
A game couldn’t pass, it seemed, without Kelce losing control.
In the Chiefs’ third game, they visited the Los Angeles Chargers, and Kelce may have paid the price. On their second snap, quarterback Alex Smith threw a pass to Kelce for a 1-yard gain.
Kelce’s consecutive-games streak with a reception, now at 63, continued. But that was it for his offensive production. It marked the only one-target game of Kelce’s career. Nobody on the Chiefs spoke of it, but it appeared Kelce was frozen out of the offense from a numbers standpoint.
The receptions came back, though, and the penalties eventually decreased. Since those opening weeks, Kelce has been flagged three times, once each for holding, a false start and offensive pass interference.
“I think he’s done better,” coach Andy Reid said. “The thing with Travis is he loves to play the game and he’s very competitive. He knows he’s going to get (opponents’) best challenge every week. He’s got to fight through some things.”
For most of this year, that fighting hasn’t come with a taunt. Kelce has played some of the best football of his career in 2017, with four 100-yard games and the second multi-touchdown game when he caught two against the Jets.
Kelce was among several regulars who didn’t play in last week’s regular-season finale at Denver, or he surely would’ve topped last year’s career-best 85 receptions and 1,125 yards. Still, he’s on the short list of the game’s current top tight ends.
“There aren’t many things he can’t do, which is so unique to have a player like that at the tight end position” Smith said. “He matches up well against so many different guys. And because of that, there is even more on his plate mentally. He faces so many different guys, from corners to safeties to linebackers.
“He’s in the pass game and the run game. He’s in protection. He has to know it all. He has a ton on his plate and handles and masters all those things.”
Now, he’s doing it without the unnecessary baggage.
“It was a matter of manning up and knowing that what I was doing was unacceptable and it had to get it fixed,” Kelce said.